AT&T’s first Android phone, the Motorola Backflip, goes on sale this Sunday. Backflip features a unique design that may or may not catch on with consumers - it’s a clamshell phone that exposes both the touchscreen and qwerty board when folded up - but the phone itself isn’t the story here. The story is that AT&T is finally hopping on the Android train as the last of America’s Big Four carriers to embrace Google’s red-hot smartphone platform.
Backflip’s story runs deeper than that, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Contrary to many reports, Android on AT&T does not foretell an Apple-AT&T split, nor does it mean iPhone is certain to move to Verizon Wireless (or any other U.S. carrier) this June. Sure, AT&T may lose iPhone exclusivity, but if anything, Backflip shows the carrier is doing all it can to appease Apple while also giving its customers some long-overdue Android devices.
How’s that? Wouldn’t an Android phone vying for attention next to iPhone on AT&T’s retail displays be taken as a slap in the face by Steve Jobs, given the very public spat between Apple and Google? Maybe, but remember that Android’s market share has grown some 44-percent over the past quarter and nearly doubled in the last 12 months while iPhone’s share has actually slipped a bit during those same time frames. It would be nothing short of market suicide for AT&T to shun the Android market any longer. So they did what they had to do, but also took an enormous, if easily overlooked step, to soften Backflip’s blow to the Cupertino camp: AT&T removed Google Search from the device.
I received a Backflip review loaner at the beginning of this week and quickly noticed something odd: Search queries on the device are routed through Yahoo!, not Google, by default. Android’s trademark Google Search widget was missing from the phone’s home screen - it’d been replaced by a Yahoo! branded widget that links to a Yahoo!/AT&T results Web page similar to those that pop up on many of AT&T’s other devices. Backflip’s Web browser - and all its other search-dependent apps - also default to Yahoo!.
No Google Search on AT&T’s first Android phone? Who approved that?
Android is an open platform, and so carriers and handset makers are free to customize their Android devices to their liking. There are minor caveats to that statement, to be sure, but that’s how open platforms work. So Motorola can soup up Android devices with its MotoBlur user interface, and AT&T can then have Moto go ahead and replace Google with Yahoo! as the default search engine on the Backflip. While I’m sure Google brass isn’t exactly thrilled about this - search being their lifeblood and all - it also looks like there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Such are the perils of open source models in a competitive marketplace.
Google retains much more control over “Google Experience” branded devices like Verizon’s Droid and Google’s own Nexus One, which don’t see much tweaking to the stock Android operating system install. But Backflip isn’t a Google Experience device. It’s Android customized to AT&T’s liking. Which brings us to the irony in all of this.
If you ask me, AT&T went with Yahoo! search on Backflip for two reasons: First, Yahoo! has long been their mobile search partner, and while Apple’s lockdown control kept Y! off of iPhone, it’s clearly in AT&T’s interest to route the rest of their mobile search traffic Yahoo!’s way. Second, and potentially more interesting, is the ever-intensifying Apple-Google feud. While Google has been Apple’s mobile partner for the entirety of iPhone’s short life, things changed the day the search giant decided they would “get into hardware” after all and launched the Nexus One, selling it direct to consumers via a Google.com Web page. It’s been “game on” ever since.
AT&T is still doing everything it can to retain iPhone as its exclusive hero device, but executives there are smart enough to know they need to diversify by bringing Android phones into the fold. Backflip is the carrier’s first attempt to play it both ways: AT&T customers finally get Android, but there’s nary a Google logo in sight on the thing, right down to its default search engine.
Moreover, Backflip is a mid-range Sidekick-type messaging phone, not a flagship device positioned directly against iPhone. AT&T could easily have launched a top-shelf Android device if it wanted to - no doubt Motorola or HTC (makers of AT&T’s Tilt II and Pure WinMo phones) would have been happy to fill the order. But they didn’t. Coincidence? Strategic move to keep Apple at the top of their lineup? I’m thinking the latter.
Rumors have long been swirling about whether or not Apple will break up with AT&T this summer. Nexus One launch day sparked a new round of rumors about Apple replacing Google with another partner as the next iPhone’s search engine of choice. When Backflip goes on sale Sunday, don’t take it as a sign that AT&T’s breaking up with Apple to “Go Google.” Quite to the contrary - take it as a sign that the company is doing everything it can to keep Apple from breaking up with it later this year, while simultaneously doing what it can to give its non-iPhone customers the smartphone choices they rightly demand.
Noah Kravitz is the editor-in-chief of PhoneDog.com.